Edited by Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey
Very recently, I had an email from someone who expressed great interest in the Reading Experience Database while raising a very important question: how do we record those instances in which a reading experience has occurred as a result of the influence of a third party? The question seems so obvious. As children many of our choices of reading material are influenced or even prescribed by parents or teachers. Later in life, friends certainly loom large, as casual chats often have an impact upon which books we might purchase or avoid, an influence extended in recent years with the proliferation of social book clubs. However, especially when dealing with material from the past, the answer can become quite tricky, not least because we are so dependent upon the memories and descriptions of our historical readers. Curiosity, and the lack of a simple solution to this quandary, set me on a mission to explore some of the evidence so far collected in the database which illuminates this theme.
First and foremost, I was pleased to find that we do have a substantial number of entries in which readers, of all backgrounds, refer to the direct influence of their parents and friends. Thomas Jackson (b.1879), for example, described the competing, but equally welcome, influence of his father and grandmother: while his father presented him with a set of Charles Dickens’s novels, Jackson’s grandmother, who rather sniffed at Dickens, ‘gave me Vanity Fair as an antidote to David Copperfield’. There are also several instances in which particularly ambitious and fiercely intellectual parents exerted strict control over their sons’ literary diet, and although enriching, the texts imposed on these young readers could also prove burdensome and suffocating. The famous Edmund Gosse (b. 1849), only son of zoological writer Philip Gosse, gives a detailed account of the books he was expected to study as a child. When Philip Gosse presented Edmund with a magnificently bound copy of Dean Alford’s edition of the Greek New Testament, he extracted ‘from me a written promise that I would translate and meditate upon a portion of the Greek Text every morning before I started for business. This promise I presently failed to keep, my good intentions being undermined by an invincible ennui.’ Similarly, as Edmund Gosse’s parents were so fond of the works of Andrew John Jukes, a writer on prophecy, at a very early age Edmund was forced to read Jukes aloud to them: ‘I did it glibly, like a machine, but the sight of Juke’s volumes became an abomination to me, and I never formed the outline of a notion what they were about.’
Predictably, the reading experiences of adults so far collected in RED refer much more frequently to the influence of friends in the selection of books and periodicals. Letters, for example, are a particularly rich source. On the one hand, writers suggest titles to their correspondents that they have recently enjoyed reading. In one, dated February 1754, Samuel Richardson recommends a number of books to Lady Bradshaigh: ‘Does your Ladiship [sic] see The Adventurer? I buy it; but have not had time to read but here and there one; But purpose from the Character judicious Friends give of them, to make them part of my Reading Entertainment when I have Leisure.’ And, on the other hand, writers express gratitude to their friends for the books that they promote. A rather satisfying example is a letter of Jane to Cassandra Austen (Aug 1805), in which Jane writes: ‘I am glad you recommended “Gisborne”, for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it.’ But in our brief survey we must not forget the common reader, of whose reading experiences we gain a glimpse through slightly less obvious sources. And here, too, we can note that direct influence of a third party. An interviewee for a Mass Observation Survey in 1942 gave the following answer to interrogations: ‘I am reading now Time is the Spur. No, I don’t know whom it is by. I was recommended to it by a friend. It’s very good.’
Finally, in this context it is worth drawing attention to the entries in RED which demonstrate the impact of institutions, in which texts are prescribed, upon immediate and future reading experiences. Texts which young students were forced to read at school could either encourage or inhibit further literary pursuits. The tantalizing extracts of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History in his school Reader inspired Thomas Jackson to purchase Macaulay’s essays when he found them at second-hand book stalls in London. For Norman Nicholson (b.1914), however, the ‘mean little school editions’ of The Old Curiosity Shop and The Chimes, ‘were enough to sour a boy against [Dickens’s] novels for the rest of his life’, a situation rescued by an inspiring teacher who read Pickwick Papers to the class. Thomas Catling’s (b.1838) experience was not so positive. As he was forced at school to recite the Psalms over and over again, the text ‘became so uninteresting, not to say repetitive, that all through life I have failed to appreciate properly the beauty of those grand Eastern compositions.’ Recent contributions to the database on reading in the nineteenth-century prison have shown a similar diversity of experiences. In an environment in which censored texts were designed to assist in the reformation of criminals in order to release them back into society, forced and optional reading produced a wide range of reactions from the convicts and remained a sticking point for the authorities.
And after that brief tour of the database, on to RED news. First, we would like to draw your attention to an event RED is co-hosting with the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, entitled ‘Reading the Past in the Nineteenth Century: A Symposium’. The event will be chaired by William St Clair, and Jonathan Rose will be responding to the papers presented by a number of prominent researchers in the field. Further details are listed below, under ‘Forthcoming Events’ and are available on the RED website. We would like to thank CVSG for their partnership in this exciting event.
As always, there are a number of people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for their generous assistance and contributions to the project, in addition, of course, to our large number of volunteers. We would like to thank Shirley Gould-Smith and James Griffin for offering extremely valuable material from their own personal collections. We would also like to thank Shirley Foster for her kind donation of a large number of references on Elizabeth Sewell’s reading, and Robin Lewis for her recent invaluable assistance. If you have not yet become a volunteer, and would like to do so, it is never too late! Please be in touch with Edmund.
Finally, we would like to thank everyone who has shown interest and submitted an abstract for our forthcoming conference, ‘Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence’, to be held at the Institute for English Studies in London on 21-23 July this year. We were delighted with the overwhelming enthusiasm with which the call for papers was received. The conference organising committee met recently to consider all the proposals and we are currently in the process of contacting speakers to confirm their participation. A provisional conference programme will be posted on the conference website very shortly. We have now also opened registration for the conference. If you are interested in attending, we recommend that you register as soon as possible as we expect that the conference will be oversubscribed. Details about registration have been posted on the RED website (www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/REDConference.html) and registration forms are available on the IES events webpage (http://ies.sas.ac.uk/events/conferences/2008/RED/index.htm). If you require any further information please don’t hesitate to contact either Rosalind or Katie (details below). We have also appended a copy of our conference poster to this newsletter. We hope you will be able to join us for what looks to be a very exciting conference.